James Murua and Sabata-mpho Mokae at Sol Plaatje Museum

A tale of two Kimberley sons; Sol Plaatje and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe

James Murua and Sabata-mpho Mokae at Sol Plaatje Museum
James Murua and Sabata-mpho Mokae at Sol Plaatje Museum

South Africa is a mining country. Everywhere you go around you will see the telltale signs of the earth stripped from the ground to extract the riches within. Nowhere this mineral hunger more evident than “The Big Hole” in the country’s Northern Cape Province town of Kimberley.

The Big Hole is one of the earlier and more organised extraction of the continents wealth by European invaders in the 19th Century. Huge diamond deposits were discovered in what would eventually be called Kimberley in 1871 and it was mined until it became the “the largest hole excavated by hand.” The wealth created by this hole and others in the mineral rich vicinity allowed the invaders to build up their resources that would be used to colonise the rest of the Southern part of the continent.

As you would expect, there would eventually be a pushback from the locals to the greedy intruders. One of the most historical of these was a young writer and journalist Sol Plaatje. He was a young man who emerged as a journalist stenographer during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. He would be sent by his people to London to “negotiate” with the English tribal Queen Victoria to look kindly upon the people native to South Africa. His mission became especially important after the laws that were enacted in 1913 that became known as the 1913 Land Act that disposed all Africans of the right to own land. He failed in his mission and would retire to Kimberley where he would write several books.

For many years, since he passed on in 1932, he has been a figure of much controversy. Some see his journey as one of the elite Africans of his time who went to try and lobby for just his small community and not the whole darker populace. For many others he was the representation of the African man who was standing up for his people.

 

Sign to Sobukwe office in Galeshwe
Sign to Sobukwe office in Galeshwe

Another very controversial figure that is immortalized by the old mining town is Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Province, South Africa and ended up working as a university professor in Johannesburg. He eventually quit academia to form the Pan African Congress party, a breakaway from the African National Congress. Unlike Plaatje, his politics were aimed at all Africans working together at the exclusion of European oppressors. Like every serious political dissident of the time like Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, he was imprisoned in Robben Island for years. Unlike the others, his ideology was considered so dangerous to the local regime he was put in solitary confinement all the years he was incarcerated.

After years in prison, he was banned by the government away from Johannesburg and they picked Kimberley as his new exile hometown in the tradition of the apartheid regime. The reasoning when this happened was that the person exiled would not be likely to be welcomed by the people in the new area where he would be considered a “foreigner.” Nothing would be further from the truth where the former University of Witwatersrand professor turned politician was concerned. In spite of the restrictions, he was not allowed to fraternise with more than one person at a time in his home, he was welcomed with open arms by the residents of Galeshwe, Kimberley.

His home was close to a sports club and residents would go to the club as they listened to his wise counsel while they “washed their sports kit.” This all happened with regime agents looking squarely on his home address of number 6 Naledi Street, Galeshwe. He also had an office downtown where practiced his law in this part of the city.

The city has given the two heroes different treatment. Plaatje the local son has a university named after him as well as a museum and library in his honour. Sobukwe the adopted son wasn’t as lucky in death. He died in this town but it seems like the friction between the party he formed, the Pan African Congress, and the party he left, the African National Congress, has never ended. His home stays the same as when he lived in it until he died in 1978.

The family that took over his home led by football administrator Whiney Manong, now passed, has endevoured to keep his memory alive by maintaining the home as it originally was. Mrs Manong his widow has kept the legacy alive and is currently soliciting signatures for a petition to make the home a national heritage site.

His home was not badly maintained as it was a home to a family who ensured it was spick and span. His former office tells a different tale completely. The office is located by a large monument to the “Mayibuye uprising” which has the iconic ANC fist salute. The office itself looks good from far but as you come closer you see a different story altogether. The paint on the walls is faded but the inside leads you to a horrible experience, trauma inducing if you were a fan of what he stood for. Without any furniture or even a door, it has become the place that Galeshwe vagrants relieve themselves when they have had one too much to drink after purchases in the nearby bottle stores.

With the contribution that Sobukwe gave to the struggle, you would have expect that an all-inclusive government obsessed with heritage would guard this kind of gem. Fear not however, there is a Nelson Mandela memorial project in the works and they just might include Robert Mangaliso Sobuke as a backdrop.